What’s next for Sjef? Dutch archer set to retire after second Olympics
Paris was Sjef van den Berg’s last Hyundai Archery World Cup performance – and his penultimate international tournament.
After the Olympic Games in Tokyo, he will call it a career.
“There’s a whole bunch of reasons, but it's mostly just that I don’t see myself as a top athlete. I just happened to be good enough to be one. I don’t feel super comfortable with that,” he said a few minutes after the mixed team medal ceremony in Paris, where he collected a silver medal with Gaby Schloesser.
The 26-year-old Dutch wants to live a life of a “normal guy”.
“That's a good way to put it. I feel like a normal guy, but it just happened that I’m quite good at this thing where you need to poke sticks into the board at a distance,” he continued.
Sjef and Gaby took back-to-back podiums on the international circuit. They grabbed gold in Lausanne and then finished as runner-ups at the third stage. Surely, this duo will be one of the top contenders when the pairs event makes its Olympic debut later this month at Tokyo 2020.
It’s the biggest competition on the calendar. A big result could be life-changing. Sjef’s going to give it his all in Japan – because he knows it’s his last chance. The 26-year-old doesn’t have anything left for afterwards.
“Today was a good example. I have a completely off the charts headache right now. I can see blurry and everything hurts. It’s because of the fact I have the constant pressure of trying to perform,” he explained. “It’s not been easy for a couple of years. Especially that I still feel like I shoot as a hobby, but I made a certain level and people expect me to always be at that level.”
Sjef came close to winning a medal five years ago at his first Olympics. He finished fourth in Rio. He had peaked at number two in the world rankings in April of that year and won a stage of the international circuit.
He had, you might say, exceeded his own expectations.
“If you have the level I can be, it’s almost a shame not to go international. I am thankful for the fact I did,” he said.
Now that this journey is coming to an end, he has no regrets.
“I have a lot of nice experiences because of it. I still don’t see myself as a top athlete. I see myself as a guy who just enjoys shooting. I want to go back to just shooting because I love it, not because people want me to shoot well,” Sjef said.
Others have walked away from sport at the top level. Few in their prime and at such a young age, though. With age a negligible factor in archery performance, there’s always the option to return. Jacob Wukie’s comeback for the USA team this year is evidence it’s possible to regain an Olympic quality even after a lengthy hiatus.
Right now, at least, it doesn’t seem on the cards for Sjef.
“I don’t see myself coming back, but I don’t want either to promise that I won’t be back. I will still keep shooting because I love it so much,” he said. “If I’m ever going to return to the international circuit, I doubt it…”
When the stakes are high, Sjef aims for gold. But performance has never been his main motivation.
“Obviously, when I’m on the finals field, I want to win. But it’s also my job. I get paid to shoot well. It kind of evolved into that. For me, it was always a hobby, something I loved to do. It takes a bit of fun out of the sport if you constantly have to do well,” he said.
“When I was a little younger, I enjoyed shooting matches. I also enjoyed trying to prove that I could shoot well. But I feel like I have proved it and now I want to go back to shooting for myself.”
Sjef’s life will change dramatically when the Olympics are over.
He isn’t afraid of the future. He’s excited to see what comes next.
“I will work at the Dutch bow store. That's where I work part-time, but hopefully, after the Games, I will go full time because I won't be able to make money just shooting for fun,” he said.
“I will also do different sports. That’s also one of the reasons [I’m leaving]. I love sport in general. I would like to do tennis, play golf, but I was always afraid I would injury my shoulder or have something with my wrist. If my income doesn't depend on shooting, I can also do different stuff without being worried I can lose my income.”
Sjef might be leaving the international circuit, but he’s certainly not leaving the sport.
“As I said, it’s not that I don’t enjoy archery anymore,” he said. “I just don’t enjoy high-level archery anymore, because there’s too much pressure.”